Shipwreck Saturday: The General Grant

The General Grant

Bound for London, the General Grant is best known for its cargo. It was carrying a number of wealthy miners, their personal store of riches, and a large bullion of gold – all of which, are the subject of much mystery and speculation today.

At 2am on the morning of May 14 1866, the General Grant struck towering cliffs while attempting to sail the narrow straight between Disappointment Island and the west cost of Auckland Island. In a matter of minutes, the ship was blown into a cave 230 metres deep. The roof of the cave forced the mast through the hull and left the ship and its passengers in serious trouble – firmly wedged in the cave with a rising tide. The General Grant was doomed, but those on board wouldn’t discover their fate until daybreak.

The wreck of the General Grant as depicted in the Illustrated London News in 1866. (Photo: ILN)

Come first light, two long-boats were loaded with passengers as the ship was engulfed by the icy waters. Of the two longboats that had escaped, one perished in the breakers with 40 people on board. The other, carrying just 15 survivors remained afloat. Of 83 passengers on board, the 15 in the longboat were the only survivors.

They rowed to nearby Dissapointment Island and took refuge at a spot known to sealers as Sarah’s Bosom. With just one match between them, a fire was lit and guarded ferociously against the elements. It was the difference between life and certain death for the survivors. When recollecting the moment when that match was struck, one of the survivors said:

This was the most critical moment of our lives. If the last match failed, starvation and perhaps cannibalism were to be our lot.’ One of the men dried the last match against his body. ‘I saw his hands tremble as he looked for a dry stone on which to strike the remaining match. He struck it with trembling fingers and the flame caught the dry grass. We all uttered, “Thanks be to God”: it was the most fervent prayer I ever said.’ The fire, once lit, was never allowed to expire.

Their future was bleak. Not only were they left with nothing but what they were wearing, the chances of a ship passing or taking shelter in the bay where they resided was slim to none. Their diet wasn’t anything to get excited about either, as it consisted mainly of seal meat, sea-birds such as albatross, and the occasional bird egg.

Despite their obstacles, the survivors of the General Grant were resourceful. They managed to grow potatoes and ensnare one or two of the small goat population that inhabited the island. They painstakingly carved albatross bones in to needles and used seal skin to make clothes and shoes. They used bones to carve a distress message in to a small piece of driftwood and cast it in to the ocean, in the hope that it would reach the shores of New Zealand.

One of the rescue floats. It is engraved with "want help" and their location. (Photo: Te Ara)

After nine months on the island, insanity was rife and four of the group set off in an attempt to reach the mainland of New Zealand. Their boat was poorly made and they never returned – they were either brave or crazy enough to sail some of the most treacherous waters without a clue of which direction was north.

A short time later, one of the remaining 11 died of illness, and despair began to set in. It wasn’t until a month later, on October 19, that the first white sail of a ship was sighted. The party tried desperately to get its attention but failed. Exactly one month later, another ship was sighted. They lit fires, yelled, waved what few white items they had, and even deployed a badly made boat to try to reach the ship. This ship too disappeared, but just two days later the party was finally rescued. Can you imagine their joy, after 18 months on the island, when they saw a ship come over the horizon and towards them?

Their saviour was the Amherst, a whaling ship from the port of Bluff. The sailors describe hauling 10 “skin-clad figures” on board before setting sail to New Zealand. Their ordeal was finally over, and their story would go on to be one of legend.

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